Speaking from Seattle Center on Tuesday in his annual “State of the City” address, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell reflected on the inspiration and innovation that got the Space Needle built 61 years ago. He said now is the time for another futuristic vision for the city.
Part of that vision will be revitalizing and reimagining downtown Seattle, and for Harrell, that means bringing back many thousands of the office workers who left when remote and hybrid work policies took hold during the pandemic.
He applauded the region’s largest employer for taking that step.
“I’m very pleased that employers like Amazon recently announced and recognize that coming back to work downtown is a great thing,” Harrell said.
Amazon announced the change in its back-to-office policy last week, saying that it wants its corporate and tech employees back in the office at least three days per week, effective May 1. Small businesses around the tech giant’s headquarters were optimistic about the change when visited by GeekWire last week. But thousands of employees expressed frustration, confusion, and anger in a new Slack channel created to share thoughts about the mandate, according to Business Insider.
In his 45-minute speech, Harrell touched on his efforts so far and hopes going forward to rebuild the city’s urban core; fight crime and improve public safety; enhance public transportation; tackle homelessness and the housing crisis; and more.
Speaking from Fisher Pavilion beneath the Space Needle, Harrell said the landmark “stands as a symbol of our city to the nation, a pinnacle of forward-looking vision and trailblazing leadership rooted in our DNA as a city.”
And he said Seattle finds itself today needing to revisit that bold vision and seize on what he refers to as “Space Needle thinking.” For the mayor, it starts with the city’s downtown.
“From the remote work revolution to ever-evolving retail landscape, the issues facing our downtown are not unique to Seattle,” Harrell said. “But what is unique is the resources we have.”
Calling downtown a special place in the country, Harrell reiterated many of his familiar talking points about being “bullish” on the city’s urban core and returning vibrancy, economic prosperity and public safety.
Harrell called downtown a “sort of laboratory for the future” and spoke of his Downtown Activation Plan with ideas ranging from making it easier to fill vacant retail spaces; “lighting up corners” with artists, musicians and pop-up vendors; art installations; a strip of restaurants, bars and other businesses open 24/7; and more.
“The possibilities are endless,” Harrell said. “It may mean changing our zoning codes to convert excess unused office space into housing. We need to recognize that downtown’s office space may never fill up as before. We need more housing options.”
The adoption of hybrid work policies at tech companies has hit the commercial real estate market hard. Total vacancy in the Seattle area reached 16.7% in the fourth quarter of last year, the highest level in more than a decade for the tech hub, according to a new report from JLL.
Harrell said that city planners will launch a design competition in March around converting office buildings to housing.
The Downtown Seattle Association commended Harrell for his continued commitment to downtown’s recovery.
“We share his belief that we have the opportunity to create a new playbook for what a center city can become,” the DSA said in a statement to GeekWire.
Beyond Amazon, Harrell’s speech didn’t call out the tech industry specifically. In outlining the five pillars that frame his public safety mindset, he touched on tech as it relates to policing. He said the Seattle Police Department has to be a “learning organization” that uses data, drives innovation and explores new technology.
Harrell has previously championed such things as gunshot detection technology, which was cut from the City budget in November. SPD also stopped using an artificial intelligence platform designed to analyze officer body-cam footage after the officers’ union objected to the program.
Watch Harrell’s full “State of the City” address here: